I recently helped a timid teenage girl have a rock-star moment in the kitchen and was reminded that sharing delicious food is perhaps the single best way to make friends. It worked for me as a child and it still works for me today. So when I was faced with this young woman who clearly needed a boost of confidence and an opportunity to shine among her peers, I knew my mission was clear.
It happened in our Kid’s Cooking Camp last week, wherein we had a room full of young cooks ranging from 7 to 13 years old. My group was tasked with making a chicken dish and pasta dish using ingredients we had just got from the farmer’s market. The kids had collectively decided they wanted to make pasta with some broccoli and some kind of cheese. (Where’s the emoticon for “my-heart-leaps-at-the-sight-of-kids-getting-excited-about-eating-green-vegetables” when I need it?!) Pasta, broccoli, cheese – a good place to start for this “cooking without recipe” challenge.
As we started to make a plan, I noticed a tall, tween girl weighed down under the trappings of awkward adolescence. She was taller than the rest of the group, a bit lanky, had troubled skin and spoke in a whisper. She was heartbreakingly shy and so uncomfortable in her body that she kept her arms folded across her front as if she was silently reciting a spell for disappearing in her mind. Essentially, she was me at 12 years old.
She reminded me of my own self-conscience childhood, always on the outside looking in. Coming from an abusive, destructive home put me on high alert at an early age. Making friends is hard when you’re always hiding in the corner. Experimenting in the kitchen was my creative outlet and I eventually learned that sharing my food was a great way to bridge the gap of shyness and isolation I felt. I’ve been making friends easily ever since.
I have no idea what this girl’s story is, but she made me want to give her the gift of culinary camaraderie. So I tried to engage my shy friend with questions about what kind of pasta she wanted to make – long or short pasta, hot or cold, with garlic or without garlic – and as her answers tumbled quietly to her shoes I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere. It was time to call in the big guns.
“What about a homemade cheesy sauce?” I asked.
“Like our own version of mac-and-cheese?” She wondered.
“Exactly like that,” I said as her eye lit up.
I had hit a nerve. I knew that she was about to discover a universal truth: homemade mac-and-cheese is like a happiness-love-potion. If you feed people this hand-crafted, gooey, creamy dish, they will be putty in your hands.
I started by teaching her the basics of a cheesy sauce (a “mornay” for all you serious foodies), not only the foundation of any budding culinary education but also the cornerstone to a pasta dish that she can use to impress and excite people for years to come. We made a roux with 2 tablespoons each, butter and flour and she learned the importance of cooking it carefully over not-too-high heat. We stirred in 2 cups milk and she discovered the critical step of whisking to make a lump-free sauce. We added 1 1/2 cups cheese and she watched with a bit of wonder as the white sauce soaked up all the cheddar and parmesan to create that signature yellow-orange color. We folded the sauce into cooked macaroni studded with little nuggets of blanched, green broccoli and presented the steamy, creamy dish to the group. Her campmate’s eyes lit up and more than one of them asked excitedly, “Who made this?!?” And when my little apprentice answered, “Me,” with a smile on her face, her eyes lifted to meet my own, I knew she’d had her first taste of admiration from her peers and there was no going back. Another future culinary rock-star was born.
None of this has anything to do with the recipe that I want to share with you this week for a delicious Ginger and Fresh Corn Fried Rice except that when I made this dish the other night for my wife and I saw her face light up, I was reminded that even after all these years I still cook to make people happy. When I was a child I did it to reach beyond an unhappy home in the only way I knew how. Today, cooking still helps me gain confidence, spread happiness and make friends. I hope my new young friend will have as tasty a journey as I’ve had.
Before we launch into the recipe, a little ingredient side bar on cutting fresh corn off the cob. Many people suggest holding the cob upright and cutting it into a bowl, but I like the easier and neater approach that doesn’t involve me chasing down kernels from every corner of my kitchen for days on end. I like to lay the cob down on its side and simply cut the corn off. If I’m making chowder or creamed corn I’ll go the extra step and scrape the corn “juice” from the cob, too, but for this recipe you only need the fresh kernels. Here’s a little video for visual reference.
- 1 tablespoon peanut, coconut or grapeseed oil, plus a bit more as needed
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced, white bits divided from green bits
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
- 3 cups cooked white rice (I usually use basmati, but any rice will work)
- corn kernels from 3 cobs (about 3 cups)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon lime juice
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 4 eggs
- salt and pepper
- Heat a large skillet (or wok) over high heat.
- Add the oil and immediately add the WHITE parts of the scallions and the ginger. Cook for about a minute until just beginning to brown.
- Add the rice and use a flat spatula to flatten the rice and fold in the pan (AVOID stirring the rice a lot and breaking the kernels.)
- Add the corn and cook for 1 minute.
- Meanwhile, stir together the soy, lime juice and sugar. Add this mixture to the pan along with most of the GREEN parts of the scallions. Stir and remove from heat.
- Heat a small non-stick pan over medium heat. Add a drizzle of oil. Cook the eggs until the whites are set and the yolks is still runny. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and cracked black pepper.
- Serve the rice topped with the sunny-side egg and the remaining green scallion bits. Eat immediately!!